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A Lesson in Miracles

To Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth, the gift of life is a miracle—and a mission.

Sixty-two years ago, 18-year-old Henri Landwirth was the walking dead on the way to his execution. Today, “I’m walking history,” says the 80-year-old Holocaust survivor. Landwirth was given a miraculous reprieve when the Nazi soldiers who were about to shoot him had a change of heart and told him to run for his life instead.

Landwirth’s remarkable life journey ultimately led him from heart-wrenching deprivation in Germany’s death camps to undreamed-of success as a hotelier in America. Convinced he was living on borrowed time, he walked out of his multimillion-dollar business one day and never came back—dedicating the rest of his life to creating and funding charitable foundations for those in need, particularly children.

Henri Landwirth shows students his Auschwitz tattoo.

The award-winning philanthropist recently spoke with NEA Today’s Sabrina Holcomb about his most recent project, Gift of Life in America, aimed at helping young people understand the ultimate consequence of hate and prejudice “before it’s too late.”

Why do you have such a sense of urgency about this project?

Landwirth: I’m one of the youngest of the Holocaust survivors. In a couple of years, we will all be gone, and none of us will be able to tell the history firsthand. Eleven million people were killed by Hitler, and some people, including children, do not believe it happened. There’s a 30 percent increase in groups like the Ku Klux Klan. We cannot forget the atrocities that took place in WWII Europe and that are still taking place all over the world—Africa, the Middle East. It’s happening right now.

The gift of life Henri Landwirth was given so many years ago is a miracle he keeps on giving to others. “Henri can’t see anybody in pain without wanting to do something about it,” says friend Walter Cronkite.

His philanthropic legacy includes many foundations for children: Give Kids the World Village, a magical 51-acre resort near Orlando, Florida, hosts free vacations for terminally ill children and their families.

A Gift for Teaching

(founded by Henri’s son) provides free school supplies to teachers.

A Gift for Music

provides violins and music lessons in twelve Florida elementary schools.

Heart of America gives free books to underprivileged kids across the country.

Dignity U Wear

distributes new clothing to the homeless and other people in need. 

What is Gift of Life in America?

Landwirth: It’s an educational program that challenges young people to eliminate hate and prejudice from their lives. Every week, I visit schools and speak to students about the Holocaust. We also have multimedia teaching tools: a CD showing my grandchildren interviewing me about my life in the concentration camps, a teacher’s guide with discussion questions and activities, and a Web site where young people can talk with each other.
This April, in honor of Holocaust Month, we’re partnering with PBS and Florida Community College in Jacksonville to do ten 40-minute broadcasts to middle school, high school, and college students throughout the state. A group of students who call themselves HYPE (Helping You Pursue Equality) will introduce me and urge their peers to take a pledge to pursue equality in all their daily interactions. Once students pledge, their names are added to our Web site

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Why did you decide to talk to school kids and educators, rather than politicians?

Landwirth: I was in the concentration camps from 13 to 18, the same age as the young people I’m talking to now. They are the ones capable of breaking the hate cycle. Last year, a teacher [NEA member Bettina Hodges] asked me if I would speak with the students at her high school when racial tensions erupted. A 15-year-old boy ended up committing suicide, and the students were all blaming each other.

Bettina Hodges says some students were using racial slurs, mocking slavery, and wearing T-shirts that said, “Your grandmother picked the cotton that made this shirt!” How do you get through to kids like that?

Landwirth: I show them my Auschwitz tattoo. In the camps, I had no name. I was just a number, B4343. I show them the bump on my head where I was bashed by a Nazi soldier and left for dead. I tell them how my father and mother were murdered. I describe my skeletal body, covered with gangrenous sores and suffering from typhus. Then I talk to them about forgiveness. I tell them how sick I was because of my hatred. But one day, I just forgave the Germans; otherwise, I couldn’t have had a normal life. My twin sister [who was also in the camps] asks me how I can forgive them. Maybe because of the two soldiers who saved my life. If not for them, I wouldn’t be alive.

Ms. Hodges says you made a tremendous impact on the students and that things calmed down after your visit. What do you think made your message so powerful?

Landwirth: When you forgive, you start feeling like a different person. If you don’t forgive, you cannot love. A lot of miracles happen to us every single day without us realizing it, and my life is one of them.

 A student’s letter to Henri Landwirth:

Sometimes we find it hard to let go of something or someone that has hurt us, but seeing you forgive the Germans for basically taking your life away has made me realize there are more important things in life than staying angry. You have changed us all.

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